Yungchia Chen speaks and moves with the quiet grace of a dancer who has been training for a lifetime. His long list of awards, honors and accolades during his 27-year career reflects his rich artistic background.
Just three years ago, Chen thought he was finished competing and was even considering going into retirement. A torn tendon in his Achilles’ heel area from a performance in 2004 had slowed him down and made him feel his age as a performer.
But when Chen was recruited for a dance competition in New York, he had one last chance to be back on center stage—and he took it.
In 2005, while teaching dance at Taiwan Arts University, Chen was spotted by Tia Zhang, a graduate of the renowned Beijing Dance School and a dancer with Divine Performing Arts, a performing arts group in New York. Zhang eventually convinced him to compete in the 2007 New Tang Dynasty Television Dance Competition in New York City. He won first place.
For Chen, the surprise was not winning the competition—he has won numerous awards in his career—it was the fact that he could still take to the stage and deliver.
“I was surprised during the competition that I could still dance—I could still participate and get an award,” recalls Chen. “I had already decided pretty much that I wasn’t going to dance anymore.”
Now an instructor at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, Chen is a choreographer and principal dancer with Divine Performing Arts. Mr. Chen sees his life’s work as a way to preserve classical Chinese culture for generations to come.
“I think Chinese dancing has many layers of meaning for human beings,” says Chen about his craft.
Chen’s career as a dancer began as a child in China. He was fascinated with dance, but what he saw lacked the inner meaning he longed to express.
“When I was a little boy, during the Cultural Revolution in China, there was nothing to watch but propaganda from the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” says Chen.
At age 11, Chen joined Guizhou College’s Dance Department, and by age 16, in 1984, he became a member of the Guizhou Dancing Troupe.
Chen’s passion for his craft has led to a storied career as a dancer and a long list of illustrious awards, including recognition for passing on the essence of classical Chinese dance to future generations for a protégé’s award. He was given the “Gardener Award” as a dance teacher/choreographer for his student winning second place at the 8th National Peach & Plum Cup Art College Dance Competition last August in China.
The Peach & Plum Cup Dance Competition, referred to as the “Oscar Award of Chinese Dancers,” is revered among dance and other performing arts institutions. It is the largest competition in the country and the only dance competition with multiple categories.
While in Taiwan, he was also showered with awards, including the Formosa Award in 2004, Taiwan’s highest award given in a national dance competition. The same year, he was given a lifetime achievement award called the “Dance Flying Phoenix Dancer’s Achievement Award.”
In 1995 he married a Taiwanese woman and moved to Taiwan, where he continued his dance career. Now 38, he is passing on the tradition to his family—both of his sons are learning Chinese dance.
A New Beginning
Chen’s life almost immediately took another unexpected turn after moving his family to the U.S. last year. He started practicing Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, a meditation practice that is banned and persecuted in his homeland of Mainland China, which the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened by because of its popularity.
In one year of practicing Falun Gong, more than the hue of Chen’s once sallow-looking complexion has changed.
“Before, even if I don’t go and argue with a person, I would be unhappy in my heart,” says Chen. “Like why does this person get more than I have? I felt a little envious, a little unhappy. Now, I’ve learned to let go.”
Chen was in three performances in last year’s Divine Performing Arts Chinese New Year’s show, which included a 15-performance run on Broadway at Radio City Music Hall.
As a dancer, being on stage requires absolute focus to avoid making mistakes. He says one way he focuses is to put all of his attention into the role that he is playing, to become that person. The sacrifices he makes are enormous, but in his eyes, so are the benefits.
“Dance is training, is learning, it really has to do with suffering, enduring hardship,” says Chen. “In this process, in this suffering, you have to find joy.”
The performances are so detailed and rich with color, intricate choreography, and inner meaning that they take him and audience members back to the roots of traditional Chinese culture.
“This performance is more traditional, and so it’s a more righteous kind of culture for the audience,” says Chen. “I think they relate to it—this traditional culture.”
Despite his achievements, Chen does not see his dancing career cooling down anytime soon. In the next 5-10 years, he says he’d like to train students and promote Chinese dance internationally.
“I think that traditional Chinese dance promotes very pure and traditional culture, and it is quite comprehensive,” says Chen.